LZ STUD, Northern I Corps of Vietnam - It was Sunday, April 13th, 1969. The skies were clear, the sun hot and relentless as we did what all good Marines do when not doing anything else--we filled sand bags. There never seemed to be enough of them because the old ones were constantly tearing open and spilling their contents, sort of a “dust to dust” process.
This place was once known as LZ Stud but had recently been renamed Vandergrift Combat Base. This was in honor of General Alexander Archer Vandergrift, Sr. who was the 18th Commandant of our beloved Corps and served in that capacity from 1944 to 1947. General Vandergrift played a very important and unique role in the history of the Marine Corps. He was the first Marine ever promoted to Four Star General while on active duty. He received the Navy Cross and Medal of Honor for his part in the World War II battles for the Solomon Islands. He successfully argued for the continued existence of the Marine Corps when, after World War II, the Army tried to absorb the duties of the Corps and have them disbanded. General Eisenhower and President Truman were both in favor of this.
The speech General Vandergrift gave to Congress contained the famous “bended knee” statement. Here is a part of that speech:
“The Marine Corps...believes that it has earned this right—to have its future decided by the legislative body which created it—nothing more. Sentiment is not a valid consideration in determining questions of national security. We have pride in ourselves and in our past, but we do not rest our case on any presumed ground of gratitude owing us from the Nation. The bended knee is not a tradition of our Corps. If the Marine as a fighting man has not made a case for himself after 170 years of service, he must go. But I think you will agree with me that he has earned the right to depart with dignity and honor, not by subjugation to the status of uselessness and servility planned for him by the War Department.”
General Vandergrift was born in Charlottesville, VA in 1887 and died in Bethesda, MD in 1973. My uncle, Roy M. West, was in the Corps from 1941 to about 1972. In his earlier years in the Corps, he was the personal driver for three different Commandants, General Vandergrift, General Clifton B. Cates and General Lemuel C. Shepherd, Jr. My uncle told me how on one occasion, while he was driving the Commandant, he had just opened the car door for the Commandant to enter the vehicle. After the General was seated in the vehicle, my uncle continued to stand outside the vehicle waiting for the General’s wife to make her way to the vehicle. When the General saw this, he asked my uncle, “Sergeant, what time did I tell you to pick us up?” My uncle answered, “At eighteen hundred hours, sir”. “What time do you have, Sgt. West?” “Sir, it is eighteen oh one, sir”. “Then why are we still sitting here, Sgt. West”? At that point my uncle took his place in the driver’s seat and drove off and left the General’s wife running down the front walk shouting and waving.
Vandergrift Combat Base was located on Route 9, a major road in the Northern I Corps of Vietnam. This road came from Dong Ha, passed by The Rockpile, crossed Kghia bridge and continued on through the valley where Vandergrift Combat Base was located and on over to Khe Sahn. Many remember Khe Sahn where approximately 3,000 Marines held off numerous attacks by up to 15,000 North Vietnamese Soldiers for several months at the beginning of 1968.
Now, back to filling those sand bags at Vandergrift Combat Base. I had arrived in Vietnam in March of 1969, about one month earlier. I was an “Old Salt” by now, or so I thought. I was a radio operator and we were told our life expectancy in Vietnam was 9 seconds. Hell, I had been here a month and was still alive. It was me and two other Marines filling these sand bags. We were working on a small level place just up the hill from our area. This way, when we filled the sand bags, we would be carrying them down hill rather than up hill. Pretty smart for a Marine, huh? We had been at it for about an hour and had dug out a space about 5 or 6 feet long, 3 feet wide and about 10 inches deep. We were talking the normal trash of three Marines trying to make what we were doing look like it was something we wanted to do rather than having been caught by the Gunny before we could hide like our fellow Marines.
One of the other Marines was from New Jersey and had been there longer than either of the other two of us. Suddenly he stopped in mid-sentence and jerked his head around in the other direction. Now, this was about two in the afternoon and there was all kinds of noise on the base. There were trucks and other vehicles moving up and down Route 9, some bringing in supplies and Marines and others going back for more. There were choppers picking up cargo nets of food, ammo, mail and every other thing needed by Marines in the field that the trucks had brought in. There were generators running on both sides of the valley. Somehow, this Marine had heard something that really got his attention. About that time, I heard a noise I already was very familiar with. It was the unmistakable sound of incoming. This time I saw the cloud of dust that went up where the rocket had hit. About that time another one hit much closer than the last and there was no doubt what was happening. The enemy was “walking” the rounds along the side of the hill we were on. They were about 200 yards higher up the hill than they meant to be. They were trying to hit the large rubber fuel bladders that were along the near side of the air strip on the valley floor.
When that last one hit, I don’t know what made me do it but I reached over and pushed both of my fellow Marines into the hole we had made by filling sand bags. I jumped right on top of them and we all three held on for the next rocket. It came soon enough and hit about 30 feet up the hill from us. There was a tremendous impact, a strong shock wave and all kinds of debris in the air. Choking on the dust we all jumped up and ran to the bunker back down the hill near our area. The other Marines in our small unit were already gathered in there. One more rocket hit quite a ways from us and after a short time the all-clear siren went off. As we came out of the bunker, I could feel the sweat running down my face and stinging. When we got outside in the light, one of my fellow Marines shouted, “You’ve been hit”! I wiped my face with my hand and looked at my hand. It was covered with blood. I had not even realized I had been hit.
One of the Corpsmen came up to me and began to remove the shrapnel from my face and clean the wounds. I told them where the rocket had hit when we dove into the hole. They said that was impossible and that if the rocket had landed only 30 feet from us we would all three be dead. We all walked back up the hill and I showed them the hole and then showed them where the rocket had hit. There was a large piece of the rocket still embedded in the ground in the middle of the small crater. We dug it out and the Lieutenant took it back with him.
The incident created the usual amount of excitement that anything out of the ordinary would create. It gave us a brief reprieve from our task of filling those sand bags. The bleeding had stopped, the pain was bearable, it was chow time and life was good at LZ Stud.
The next day we headed out to join one of our units in the field. LZ Stud was our Forward Rear, another Marine Corps term that was contradictive in and of itself. What that really meant was that this was our forward most rear position. Most of our small units were operating somewhere not too far from here, therefore, this was a good location from which to deploy back to the field.
As the effects of the rocket landing near us began to wear off, I began having pain in my ears. It got worse by the day and I began to ask the “Doc” to look at my ears to see if he could see anything wrong. He didn’t have any instruments for looking down in my ears and he couldn’t see anything. As the pain continued to increase, the Doc began to use a large plastic syringe to force water into my ears to flush out anything that might be lodged in them. This did not help and the Doc began to give me Darvon for the pain. I was taking more and more Darvon and it was not really helping that much. My throat began to get sore and my jaw didn’t work like it should. I could no longer eat solid foods because of my jaw. Then I was sent back to LZ Stud again.
When I got back to LZ Stud, it just happened to be the day that a real Doctor came out to look at any problems anyone had. I was told to get over there and let him have a look at my ears. When the Doctor examined me, he told me to let my unit know I would not be coming back today.
He called in an emergency medevac chopper to take me out to the USS Sanctuary hospital ship off the coast of South Vietnam. When I got out there and the Doctor on the ship examined me, he said he didn’t know if he could save my hearing or not. The hospital ship was extremely crowded and they needed all the beds they could get. The Doctor kept me on the ship for 15 days.
By the time I left the ship, I had begun to be able to eat solid foods and the pain had almost gone.
The ship was off the coast of Da Nang when I left it and I caught a chopper in to the airfield. I hitched a ride up to Quang Tri where our battalion headquarters was located. When I got to the area, I found my outfit had moved while I was on the hospital ship. It reminded me of the old joke about the kid who came home from school to find his family had moved. I ask around until I found out they had moved to Dong Ha. I caught another chopper ride over there and hooked up with my unit. I finally made it back out to where I was when I got hit, LZ Stud.
I continued to have ear infections for many years after I was separated from active duty. I went to the VA and filed a claim in case I continued to have trouble. My claim was denied. I already had trouble hearing and this had been verified when I had my separation physical. Other veterans told me you always have to file a second time before you can get a claim through. I obtained copies of my medical record and went back to the VA. This time the Doctor looked at my medical record, my Purple Heart Certificate and other documentation. He said it was obvious to him that the infection was a definite result of the trauma caused by the rocket. He said he could see scar tissue in my ears. He said it would be no trouble to get my claim approved. The letter came back in about one month and it said “denied” once again. Looks like LZ Stud won this battle.
By Bill Bratton